Captivity by Deborah Noyes
The mere description of Captivity was enough to get this former Northern Studies student very excited. The novel artfully blends two stories, one of which centers on Maggie Fox, erstwhile founder of the American Spiritualist movement (as member of “The Fox Sisters”) and longtime love of Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane. Maggie's rise to fame is comparable to every sad Hollywood celebrity story you can think of but what happened between her and Kane is truly the stuff of epic romantic tragedy. Put that into a novel that includes a reclusive painter reeling from her own story of lost love and I was hooked before the first page. Thankfully, in spite of my high expectations, author Deborah Noyes did not let me down.
The story of the Fox sisters is told from Maggie’s perspective and remains true to history. On a lark, Maggie and her sister Kate began “rapping” or making loud noises with their knuckles one night in their upstate New York home in 1848. Their family was quickly terrified and suspected paranormal activity. The girls, long bored by life on a working farm, ran with the game until it became too big for them to stop. The community was convinced spirits were haunting the Foxes and to admit guilt would have resulted in recriminations that neither girl was willing to face. When their older sister Leah returned home and realized what the girls were doing she saw serious money making potential and The Fox Sisters was born. Over the next decades they performed publicly and in private séances taking the country by storm. While many people tried to debunk their performance (to the extent that they were stripped naked and examined) it was not until years after they stopped appearing and Maggie admitted how the raps were created that they were exposed as frauds. Even then, Maggie and Kate are still credited with creating a movement that brought spiritualism into the mainstream.
Noyes has a clear-eyed view of Maggie’s world and writes about her willingness to participate in the “shows” while also loathing much of what she does and her sister Leah’s rapid takeover of their lives. The author includes a very telling episode early on as Maggie considers just what they have gotten themselves into. On the one hand, yes, they are lying to everyone around them but on the other hand, in that particular time and place the lies were very nearly the only option the Fox sisters had for any sort of independence. Noyes writes, "And what’s the difference, after all, between real and unreal when people react precisely the same way to either? Doesn’t the Bible say somewhere, Ask and you’ll receive? Well, Maggie’s asking, and since this spirit game started, no one’s told her no. Her life before… was one agonizing no."
Threading through Maggie’s story is that of the fictional Clara, a single woman living with her academic father in a state of near total seclusion. The two women meet in Rochester as the Fox sisters are just making their way onto the public stage. Through a family friend Clara employs Maggie for basic housework in the early days before the “act” begins to pay for itself. Accustomed to being deferred to, Clara is shocked by Maggie’s outspoken manner. Almost in spite of themselves the two women become friends, with Clara growing more concerned over Maggie’s choices and Maggie persistently trying to draw Clara back out into the world.
The events that sent Clara into her room are revealed via flashbacks to her life in England: an artist’s commission for a family friend, the expectations of maiden aunts and an unexpected romance that struggled to bridge class divides. Clara’s love is mirrored in the real relationship between Maggie Fox and Kane -- the most famous man of his day (his funeral train was second only to Lincoln’s) and a member of a society who viewed the Fox sisters as entertainments, not acceptable love matches. The explosion of Clara’s relationship sent her into a long depression and the welcome confines of a house and bedroom on the other side of the ocean; Maggie finds herself cut adrift by Kane’s death and subsequent battles with his family. Her story ends in abject misery, all her hard work lost in recriminations, all her love unable to withstand the onslaught of what is deemed acceptable. Maggie’s tragedy is well known and enormously sad, Clara’s story belongs entirely to Noyes and she matches it to Maggie’s with clear and heartfelt precision yet keeping it separate and also, in the end, very different.
Captivity is a beautifully written book of friendship and romance that delves deeply into the struggles met by young women in the mid-19th century. Their choices were so limited, their futures so controlled that any movement beyond the expected met with shock and disdain. As professionally successful as the Fox Sisters might have been they were still met by no small amount of scorn, and as much as Kane might have genuinely felt for Maggie he did not love her enough to challenge his family. (Which is remarkable when you consider the height of his personal fame and success.) The expectations Clara rises up against are no less extraordinary and her disappointment just as acute. The two women face each other across a class separation as well, but they see kindred spirits; they see kindred lives. In the end Captivity is as much about freedom as it is about love and as elegantly written and beautifully told as it may be, the reading of it still cuts like a knife. Noyes has a gift for placing a literary microscope on the quietest parts of society; she’s sees these women as the discontented creatures they were and demands that we see too how pressing their cages were and how utterly unfair their lifelong confinement.
Captivity by Deborah Noyes